Over the next ten days we will be publishing the ten finalists from the 2019 Voorheesville Short Story Contest. This, the third of our first five stories, was one of the ten that made it to the final round of judging. Today, enjoy Will Reilly’s story, “When Home Hurts.”
It can be difficult, leaving. I know from experience. There was a time when I didn’t think I’d ever make it alone. And yet the lessons discovered through leaving have made me the person I’ve always wanted to be and never seemed to see looking in the mirror.
I’ve decided it’s important that I tell my story. The old me would never have done it, choosing instead to hide back in the fear and darkness that has since evaporated from my life. Because sometimes home is not what you think — or who you think.
I was a freshman in college when I first met the love of my life. At first it didn’t feel like much; Alex was just another classmate from a neighboring dorm who seemed nice. But feelings came, the way they always do. First approaching like the ocean on a calm day when one stands at the edge of the beach barely getting their feet wet. And then it was a tidal wave; washing over the two of us and drawing us in, carrying us out into unchartered waters.
Things began quickly. Within a week we had progressed from catching each other staring in class to shifting out of comfort zones: joining any clubs the other was in, and intentionally setting ourselves up to “accidentally” meet. By the third week we had made it official. Our friends loved every second of it. It was like the plot of a teen rom-com: me the quiet, reserved kid in the back of the room getting with my crush, Alex – the beautiful, sweet, apple of my eye, universally seen as way out of my league. And yet there we were, spending more and more time together and becoming more and more close. We formed a kind of trust between ourselves – an ability to share with each other what we could share with no one else. We were generally both pretty quiet, only choosing to speak when spoken to for the most part, yet social enough.
The weeks and months came and went. We became integral parts to one unit — each of us could not be pictured without the other by his side. Alex and I had fun together — we made memories. And while we had our clashes, as any relationship does, we always figured it out in the end. The first honeymoon phase never seemed to end.
And that’s where it all started to go wrong.
Things escalated again towards the end of undergrad. We began to spend time with each other’s families, go on vacations together, basically living in each others’ dorms. Once, the idea of buying an apartment together came up. We each had jobs, and the means necessary to do so if we so chose. Our parents did not object; they felt the same way we did. The way our friends did. The way everyone did. That we were perfect for each other. So we went and did it. And all was well.
The apartment was small physically, but it quickly became a large part of our lives together. We finally had the flexibility to be together whenever we wanted, to do whatever we chose.
Everything was perfect.
It was not long after that the partying started. We agreed that we needed some space, needed to build up our lives outside of each other.
There was a bar across the way from our apartment. At most a two minute walk. It made it easier to party and drink and get home soon after. It gave us the opportunity to walk home before waiting for the effects of drinking to wear off without a designated driver.
It was perfect.
The first time Alex hit me came after one of these nights out drinking. At first I thought I was to blame. I made a snarky comment about not answering texts because I had been forced to stay up late waiting out of nervousness regarding a potential incident at the bar. Before I knew what had happened my lip was bleeding and my left arm, having used it to defend myself from a second punch, was covered in bruises. But what’s the harm in a couple bruises? In a little scuffle? Who am I to be angry with the supposed love of my life for being emotional after drinking? I convinced myself that I shouldn’t have commented on how late it was. 20 minutes after the first incident I made a mental note – sitting alone in the dark kitchen of our apartment, ice-pack in hand pressed up to my jaw – to be more understanding in order to keep the relationship going. So I moved on. Or I thought I did. The truth is, the fear inside me grew that night, as I iced my bruises. I knew I had to be careful now. It might be difficult to spend the rest of my life with someone who could hurt me but I told myself that in the long run it would be worth it. And that it was worth it right then and there. Besides, a loving partner would never intentionally hurt their significant other, right? It couldn’t have been intentional, and it probably wouldn’t happen again. I’d just pretend nothing happened and go about my happy life in love. And that’s what we did. When we woke up the next morning, neither of us said anything.
Everything seemed fine.
Except I couldn’t forget what had transpired. And it happened again.
The second time was incredibly similar to the first. It seems every time holds its similarities — drinking and tension from arguments were common factors — but this one felt bigger. When something happens once it’s easy to pass it off as a small mistake; to convince yourself that it won’t happen again. When it happened the second time I knew it was an issue. But my reaction may have been the biggest mistake I’ve ever made. I chose to hide how I felt. I let the hurt linger and the fear grow, in the hopes of clinging to what was left of a toxic relationship.
The hitting continued. It happened again. And again. And again. It carried on for weeks and then months.
I could have stopped it. Instead, I stayed quiet and waited for everything to play itself out. As a young college kid, it is easy to convince yourself that you are loved, and should do what it takes to make sure you don’t lose that love. I refused to let the hurt get to me and allowed it to happen. I believed at the time that it was worth hurting a little to still feel Alex’s love.
By the start of our last semester I decided I had had enough. I had lost count of the number of times Alex hit me. It reached a point where the sadness and blame I placed on myself grew with what used to be an overwhelming sense of fear into a newfound anger. I began to stand up for myself.
There was one instance where Alex returned home from drinking, Heineken still in hand, slightly limping. I had chosen to stay home that night, rather than join some other friends at mini golf, to catch up on some work I was doing for a different friend. I initially felt rather bitter about it, but found some enjoyment having the apartment to myself for the evening. When Alex showed up appearing hurt, I immediately expressed my worry. Maybe there was another fight at the bar.
“Are you alright?” I asked.
In response I received a glare that could ruin your day in an instant. Alex shoved past me to the fridge, saying, “Fine,” before adding, “Where’s my beer?”
I was shocked to feel a newfound confidence inside me that, at that moment, convinced me to reply:
“I think you’ve had enough to drink for one night.”
This seemed to shock Alex too. The person who had once been my whole world turned to me and, with a quick lunge and push, knocked me back into the chair behind me.
Alex held up the empty beer bottle menacingly, and said, “I swear to god if you don’t tell me where the hell they are I’ll . . .”
I didn’t wait for the sentence to be complete. I swiftly managed to duck out under an outstretched, threatening arm and ran without looking back. When I was out of the house, I called a friend. He didn’t pick up. I called another. She didn’t pick up. I figured they must have been out and about enjoying themselves. It was a gorgeous Friday night, after all. I spent the night in the hotel down the road. The next couple nights too. I returned on Monday to find the apartment just how I had left it and to only a simple greeting from Alex. I was almost disappointed to have such an uneventful return home. I had been holding out so long for improvement from my partner only to be hurt again and receive an indifferent “Hey,” where the apology should have gone.
We began a falling out after that weekend. Alex and I talked less and less. On the plus side of that, we got into less arguments as a result. But the feelings we had for each other were clearly waning.
This carried on for several weeks before Alex decided it was time to move on. It is incredibly difficult when someone says they love you and then turns around and chooses to be with someone else instead, and at first it felt like getting over what had been the longest relationship of my life would be the steepest mountain I’d ever have to climb. In hindsight it’s easy to see that was not the case, and I soon found myself ruminating over the possibility that maybe moving on was to my benefit.
Maybe I had gotten lucky.
In the aftermath of my experience, I’ve come to see that I should not blame myself for being hurt. My willingness to accept blame in order to avoid hurting the people I loved is part of what kindled the fire that had been born from the ashes of a toxic relationship; the fire that had allowed the violence to continue. And yet I can see now that the problem did not lie in my willingness to give more than I took but in Alex’s emotional outbursts and willingness to take more from me than I could give. I’ve come to recognize that it is best to get away from whatever causes hurt despite it maybe not being in the best interest of everyone involved.
I’ve become more confident in myself through this process. They call it the road to recovery, but you never really recover. The hurt lingers. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever feel the same. And yet there is growth that comes with it. With situations like these. There is hope.
What is hope? It’s so incredibly easy to question it, wonder where it has gone on the worst days; how it vanishes so quickly despite the presence of the things you love. You might ask,
“When all the hope in the world seems to disappear, where do you turn?”
In the past, I would answer, “Go home. Find the love in your life and embrace it.” Home can be anything — whatever it is that you continually go back to for whatever reason. Maybe it was a happy place at some point. Maybe it still is. Maybe it feels like a safe place. And yet, with all that I have encountered in this life I’m leading, I have come to no longer accept this advice as Gospel. When a home is no longer a place that fosters the love and care that it is meant to bring — when it no longer gives you support for growth and comes to represent the wrong in the world that holds you back or makes life seem harder — the world seem colder — it is okay to leave.
You can leave and never come back if you choose. It can be incredibly difficult to leave someplace, something, someone, you love. At first, it may feel like it hurts more than the pain from life in a toxic situation. A home is not easily built, and it can seem daunting to start anew. But when home is no longer the safe, happy place that brightens your day, when it is no longer the scenic calm ocean helping to wash away the bad things in life the way it should, remember you have the choice and the power to move on.
You can do it.